Gov. Mills does not approve
Yesterday I sat down to lunch with a number of Isthmus staff writers and a few of my fellow freelancers, among whose number was Dave Blaska. I always prefer discussion with Blaska in person rather than via internet comments he comes off as entirely more personable and even, dare I say, slightly more reasonable than anything he writes online. And though we still disagree on a great many things, we can talk without me feeling like I need to slam my head into a wall.
Our brief discussion over the deli spread from the Jenifer Street Market ended on an interesting note, with Dave asking me, if I disliked Walker's budget plan so much, what I would do instead.
"I'm not the governor, Dave," said I.
"That's a cop-out," said Dave.
"The governor is an elected official who sought the position, is surrounded by people whose job it is to think about stuff like this, and frankly I expect better," retorted I.
And I stand by that -- we should rightly expect more from people who seek positions of power and influence -- but I couldn't help but think: OK, put your money where you mouth is, Emily, and come up with a few ideas. I'm never going to be governor, of course. And I don't have a bevy of economists and financial analysts and political scientists to back me up. Still, a gal can try -- so this one's for you, Dave Blaska.
First, redirect the debate
I recently read an interesting piece over at Peninsula Pulse by one Myles Dannhausen Jr. called "Locked Into the Wrong Debate" and felt like it made some really legitimate and important points. Most concise among them was this:
Why is it that any mention of taxing the wealthiest Americans is shouted down as class warfare, but cutting wages and benefits of middle-class Americans working in public service is not?
These are concerns I have heard raised elsewhere, but so far not with the volume and frequency necessary to make the nation pay attention.
Already the unions have agreed to concessions regarding increased contributions toward pensions and health insurance. Scott Walker continues to ignore them, however, because he's more interested in destroying their ability to negotiate and bargain than he is in actually being fiscally responsible.
Marc Levine, in an opinion piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, had it right when he wrote:
Most assuredly, Wisconsin isn't "bankrupt" because public-sector unions here have the right to collective bargaining. There are 13 states with no collective bargaining rights for public workers; eight of them have larger budget shortfalls than does Wisconsin. In Texas, for example, a non-collective bargaining state whose low-tax, "open for business" economic policies are vaunted by the right, the state's deficit as a percentage of the total budget is over twice that of Wisconsin's.
I, for one, have no desire for Wisconsin to emulate Texas.
Unions, after all, are one of the few forces strong enough to go toe-to-toe with big business. Cripple them and corporations (or, in this case, a government being run like a corporation) are yet more free to trample on the rights of the very workers who keep them in profits.
It's part of a strategy that many Republicans and even plenty of Democrats have subscribed to over the past several decades -- trickle-down economics, deregulation of industry, and slashing corporate taxes.
And they do this while shouting about "shared sacrifice" and how we all need to "do our part" to get the economy back on track. The only problem -- and it's a big one -- is that almost none of the sacrifice is being made by the very wealthiest and most powerful members of our society, while the vast majority of the burden remains on those at the bottom.
I've already written about the various tax loopholes that could be closed, moves that would earn the state a great deal more income without unduly burdening those who can least afford it.
It's long past due that the conversation in Wisconsin -- and, indeed, nationally -- turn away from how the middle and working classes need to give up more and toward how the very wealthy should be compelled to pay their fair share. After all, they're the ones who've benefited the most (often through unscrupulous means) from the resources and services offered by our democracy. They're also the ones more likely to hoard their money, as opposed to actually putting it back into the economy.
We must also not forget that it was the big corporations and banks -- Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and plenty of others -- that drove our country into its continuing economic mess through unbridled greed and reckless scheming. It was the meltdown that they caused that blew up state economies -- not the decent pensions and health benefits negotiated by public sector unions as a way to make up for their lower than private-sector salaries.
These companies were then rewarded for the crash and burn by political enablers via TARP funds, and allowed to give themselves lavish bonuses and severance packages -- all while millions of regular folks lost their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods.
It's insulting that those very same people are now being asked to sacrifice even more so that Walker and his ilk can reward their wealthy donors and climb to ever higher political heights on the bent backs of the middle class.
Second, implement truly fair taxation
Once we can actually have an honest discussion about who's really paying -- or not paying -- for what (and I know that's a lot to ask), then we need to take a long, hard look at creating a tax system that is fair and equitable. Taxes are, after all, how the state brings in income -- income that goes toward the essential services that make our communities function and thrive: police, fire, trash collection, teachers, water treatment, road maintenance, courts, etc.
I'm happy to pay taxes to see that these things get done, and done well, for everyone. If I was making more money, I'd be happy to contribute more taxes. I suspect that the vast majority of the protesters who've been at the Capitol for the past three weeks feel the same way.
But it's hard to pay your fair share with a cheerful smile when so many with so much more are doing everything they can to avoid chipping in:
- The Government Accountability Office reports that 72 percent of all foreign corporations and about 57 percent of U.S. companies doing business in the United States paid no federal income taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005.
- Overseas tax havens cost the U.S. treasury over $100 billion a year.
- A study by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future documented that Wisconsin corporations underpay state and local taxes by more than $1.3 billion annually.
That $1.3 billion could go a long way toward easing the state's projected $3.6 billion deficit.
Instead of mindfully tackling the real problems in this state, however, Walker has decided to use the admittedly dire economic circumstances to distract the masses and continue rewarding those who are helping to cause the mess.
In addition to stripping massive amounts of state funding from essential programs, he's also hamstringing local governments and school districts by then capping the amount of taxes they can raise. If the state got its finances in order via closing loopholes and equitable taxation practices, there'd be no need to cut funding to these programs in the first place.
Instead, Wisconsin is currently looking down the barrel of the following cuts:
- Department of Administration: loss of 75 jobs
- Arts Board: completely defunded
- Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection: loss of 8 full-time positions
- Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board: 21.5% cut
- Department of Commerce: completely defunded
- Department of Corrections: 6.9% cut for 2012, loss of 333 jobs
- Historical Society: 7.9% cut, loss of 18 jobs
- Department of Justice: 6.0% cut
- Medical College of Wisconsin: 13.1% cut
- Department of Natural Resources: 15.8% cut, loss of 69 jobs
- Public Defender Board: 4.4% increase
- Department of Public Instruction: 8.2% cut ($530 million)
- Department of Transportation: loss of 149 jobs
- UW Hospitals and Clinics: completely defunded ($153 million)
- UW Madison: split out into its own line with a budget of $494 million
- UW System (outside Madison): 49.5% cut. It goes from $5.4 billion to $2.7 billion, so the difference is far more than the subtraction of UW Madison (total $2.2 billion). Loss of over 10,000 FTEs.
- Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation: A new entity with a $99 million budget and executives appointed by the governor.
- Wisconsin Technical College System: 21.3% cut
State-mandated recycling, in place in Wisconsin since 1995, would be eliminated under Gov. Scott Walker's budget. And payments to local governments to run those programs -- a total of $32 million this year -- would be halted.
The budget also rolls back limits on the amount of phosphorus -- which causes weed and algae growth in our waterways, leading to higher pollution levels -- that can be emitted by municipalities. Apparently the only thing Walker is interested in recycling are the failed conservative policies of the past.
Third, the children are our future; I'd like it not to be an undereducated, impoverished future
Walker pays a lot of lip service to the importance of education. In his budget address, he claimed that "...we have to produce graduates who are able to compete -- not only with their peers from Chicago or Des Moines -- but also from Shanghai or Sydney."
How does his proposal to reduce state aids to schools by $834 million over the next two years -- a 7.9 percent reduction -- and also to reduce school district revenue limits by 5.5 percent, "preventing local officials from using property taxes to make up the difference," accomplish that exactly?
Walker insists that he's also giving local governments and school districts "the tools to make up for those reductions with even greater savings through the budget repair bill." That's where the union busting comes back into play. Those "tools" he touts so much amount to districts being able to slash salaries and benefits for teachers and other faculty. The budget also eliminates the Wisconsin Covenant, a program that helps kids -- especially those from working class families -- find a path to college.
I fail to see how punishing the people who educate our children and those children who come from lower-income families can do anything to help anyone compete on a national or international level.
We need to think more long-term. Better education (that is: smaller class sizes, comprehensive and up-to-date curriculum, better-paid teachers, diverse teaching styles for diverse learning needs, etc.) tends to mean a more productive, healthier population and, therefore, economy.
Investing in things like education and health care now equals big savings in the long run. We all do better when we all do better, as the saying goes.
But what can we do right now?
If I continued to lay out my Brilliant Plan for Wisconsin's Future, this post would run to epic proportions, so I'll stop here. I think what I laid out above would be a great start to addressing the problems we face, instead of creating new problems, as Walker's budget plan does. And I can say that with some confidence, because most of the ideas above aren't even originally mine -- but rather come from far more informed minds that have done even more research and studying and considering than I've had time to do in my short 29 years on this Earth.
Sadly, all the reasonable planning and pitching in the world won't do any good right now, since our governor refuses to actually have a conversation with us. Instead, he's chosen a very narrow path, put on his blinders, and is riding hard toward the cliff.
In the interest of not letting him take the rest of us over the edge with him, it's time for drastic measures:
Join the effort to recall eight vulnerable Republican senators -- putting pressure on them to vote against the budget bill, if not ousting them outright.
Join the effort to recall Walker as soon as possible.
Voice your support for the 14 Democratic senators who remain out-of-state in an effort to slow down the bill's progress. Voice your support for any politician/activist/business standing up for the rights of working people. Become a politician/activist/protester standing up for the rights of working people.
Lord knows the current occupant of the governor's office isn't.